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Chapter Ten. "What do you mean, she's gone?" Mrs

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"What do you mean, she's gone?" Mrs. Danville swept Vienna with a frosty stare. "She left a few hours ago."

"Just like that?" Shock thinned her voice. "Did she leave a message for me?" She felt like an idiot for asking but held her ground, refusing to be intimidated. "It's just that we'd talked earlier about having dinner together."

Mrs. Danville bestowed one of her superior smiles, little more than a reluctant fare of the lips. "There was no mention of entertaining a guest for the evening, Miss Blake. But you're welcome to wait in the parlor while I telephone her. Perhaps I misunderstood."

"That won't be necessary."

Vienna glanced despondently past the housekeeper into the great hall. She could see the staircase and could almost feel Mason's body against her own. How could Mason have gone, after all they'd just said to each other? Vienna felt as though they'd finally built a bridge to stand on, safe from the floodwaters of the past. For once she'd allowed herself to listen to her heart, not her head. But things had happened so fast, she needed to stop. She found Mason impossible to resist. It would have been all too easy to go home with her and make love, but Vienna wanted to make that decision when her judgment wasn't clouded by physical desire. She had to find out if she would still choose to be with Mason, because if she did that would change everything.

Mrs. Danville elected to stop torturing her. "Something urgent arose in the city. She said if anyone was looking for her, I was to extend her apologies."

"I see." Vienna recognized her cue to leave but she couldn't bear to walk away, having come this far. "Is she planning to return late?"

If Mason had something urgent to deal with, perhaps she would drive back afterward. Vienna could be here when she arrived home, keeping that promise to spend the night in her bed.

"I had the impression she would be away for several days," Mrs. Danville said.

Vienna couldn't believe what she was hearing. It made no sense after what she'd seen in Mason's face only hours earlier. "Why?" she whispered.



Mrs. Danville looked at her oddly. "I suggest you ask her yourself, Miss Blake."

Through a film of tears, Vienna studied the marble statue near the door, trying to compose herself. She shivered as a gust of wind sent dry leaves flurrying over the broad front steps. "Yes, of course."

Go, she thought, but she couldn't bring herself to begin the journey back knowing what she would be leaving behind. She had the irrational thought that she might never see Mason again. The possibility struck her like a blow.

"Are you quite well, Miss Blake?"

Vienna couldn't speak. Her whole body shook. She made a sound that surprised her, a thin little scream not quite stifled as it emerged. The noise seemed to startle Mrs. Danville as well.

"I think it might be wise for you to sit down," the housekeeper said. "You've gone pale."

She led Vienna indoors and ushered her into a small parlor close by. Vienna sat down on a chaise lounge, thoroughly embarrassed. "I'll be perfectly fine in a moment. I forgot to eat today, so I guess the walk made me light-headed."

Mrs. Danville allowed her to get to the end of her burbled excuses, then said, "If you'll excuse me, Miss Blake, I'll make you a cup of tea."



Vienna didn't waste her time arguing. Mrs. Danville was already walking away. "That very nice of you."

She received an unsmiling nod and Mrs. Danville vanished out a door at the other end of the room. Vienna surveyed her surroundings bleakly. There were no windows, a deficit for which those who liked to sit here had compensated by means of landscape paintings on several walls. The largest of these drew Vienna's gaze. The bucolic country scene it depicted was strangely familiar. A Clydesdale horse pulling a cart, several stone cottages that could only be British, some sheep. Jarred, Vienna looked away. The painting wasn't the only familiar item in the room. A large Chinese vase was displayed on a dark Victorian stand. Staring at it intently, Vienna had a flash of herself lying here on the chaise lounge transfixed by the elaborate brushwork of the flowers and tiny figures. She'd been here before. But when?

"Lemon?" Mrs. Danville's voice made her jump.

"Yes, thank you," Vienna replied automatically, then heard herself blurt out the very question she knew better than to ask. "Mrs. Danville, do you remember the night of the ball?"

The housekeeper started as if a pair of invisible hands had clamped down on her shoulders. She set the teapot down with a clatter and her thin fingers closed over the key ring dangling at her side. "That was a long time ago."

"Yes. Ten years." Vienna hesitated. "I guess the trees made me think about it. The colors. As I was walking here. I used to go for walks after I got out of the hospital, and it was fall by then."

Nothing could have been further from her mind when she knocked on Mason's door than this uncomfortable topic, but the woman in front of her knew more than she admitted, Vienna was certain of it.

Mrs. Danville handed her a cup and saucer. "I was out that evening."

"But you know what I'm talking about, don't you?" Aware that she was craning forward, Vienna forced herself to relax and take a sip of her tea. "The police spent a lot of time here, didn't they?"

"Under the circumstances, that's not surprising."

"What did they find?"

"Your mother is the person to ask about that. Or the detective in charge."

"As you know, he's retired, and I always get the same answer from my mother. I find that strange after so many years. Nothing ever changes. Not a word." Vienna wrapped her arms around herself. "It's not like a memory. It's like...lines in a play."

"Mrs. Blake's choice of language is not my concern."

The dismissal was delivered with such cold courtesy, Vienna felt like a child again, the same child who had knocked on the door several times after she and Mason had agreed that they couldn't be friends. She'd been turned away by the woman in front of her. This time she wasn't so easily deterred.

"Why won't anyone talk about it?"

"What is there to say?" Mrs. Danville snapped like a crack had opened in her stalwart composure. "Take my advice and let sleeping dogs lie."

"Sleeping dogs..." A phrase one didn't use for trifling matters. Determined to uncover the truth, Vienna said, "For heaven's sake, it's been ten years. Henry Cavender is dead. So is Lynden."

Mrs. Danville looked nonplussed, then seemed to collect herself. "I made my statement to the police at the time. I have nothing to add."

Vienna lost her temper. "Whatever he did, he can't be arrested now. Don't you see?"

"Who are you talking about?"

"Your boss, of course. Who else!" Was she imagining it, or did she detect faint signs of relief in Mrs. Danville's face? She set her cup and saucer aside and made herself speak more calmly. "Look, I just want to know what happened."

"You don't remember anything at all?"

"They say I probably won't, after all this time," Vienna replied. "All I remember is walking in the garden."

In her mind, she retraced her steps, through the gap in the fence and down into the pines, past the lake, and toward the house. She'd found a gate in the high stone wall near the ruins and entered a dark garden. The air was heavy with the scent of lilies and the sappy pungency of the daffodils crushed beneath her feet. It was the violet hour, shadows closing on the anvil where night reshaped day. Around her blooms hung big and pendulous from climbing roses and the last of the rhododendrons. She collected a handful of petals and buried her face in them, lost in the heady essence of a perfumed world, where beauty reined and time stood still.

She remained on that fairy threshold for too long, held prisoner by her senses, heedless of the encroaching dark. When she finally realized the stars were out, she stumbled into the garden, but she was suddenly filled with unease, imagining that she was being followed or watched. She looked over her shoulder, then shrugged off her fears as the jabs of a guilty conscience. Anxious to escape the deep shadows and threatening shrubbery, she hurried along the path and found herself in a cemetery. The boy hadn't mentioned that. He'd told her about a small summerhouse. That was where she was supposed to go, although she'd forgotten why.

Her parents had been angry about that, the affront of her sneaking away from their ball on some dubious assignation at Laudes Absalom. They didn't believe her story about the boy. There was no child at the ball who matched his description and the police couldn't find the child when they began their investigation.

"What happened?" she asked Mrs. Danville. "Please tell me the truth."

The housekeeper was silent. She seemed to become her real age then, as if a waxen cloak had fallen from her, the one that normally smoothed every surface, concealing the toll of time. Even her hands looked more wrinkled.

"You know!" Vienna accused. Hot tears filled her eyes. "You know and you're not saying. Who are you protecting-the dead? It's a bit late for that, isn't it?"

"Miss..." An old man emerged from the gloom of the hall and stood in the doorway. After a moment's hesitation, he stepped in behind Mrs. Danville and placed a hand at her elbow. "You'd best be going. We're not free to speak on these matters and you do wrong to ask."

The quiet dignity of his reproach struck home and Vienna was filled with shame. She had crossed that line and compromised a principle held dear by her family-staff should not be coerced by those in a more powerful position. Wiping her tears, she stood and said, "Forgive me, Mrs. Danville. It won't happen again. Thank you for the tea."

Without waiting for a reply, she left the room and crossed the great hall.

"Miss Blake?" There was a rare emotional timbre to the voice that arrested her.

Vienna turned and met Mrs. Danville's eyes. "Yes?"

"Your father was here that night."

"When?"

"Much later. He and Mr. Cavender had Scotch in the study."

"They drank together?" Vienna couldn't imagine why her father would have sat down with the man he blamed for the attack. No one had ever mentioned that meeting to her. "I don't understand. What did they talk about?"

"Perhaps your mother knows," Mrs. Danville suggested, moving to open the door. Her tone was back to normal and it was clear that Vienna had overstayed her welcome.

She offered a polite farewell and, with a despondent glance at the statue, descended the broad front steps. Like the marble woman feeing with her dog, she could not resist a backward glance. But Vienna wasn't sure what compelled her more. Sorrow over Mason, or fear that a knife was about to land between her shoulder blades.

 

Mason slammed the door of her office and rested her shoulder against it. She wanted to punch her fist through the timber veneer. Something had to break and it couldn't be her. She slid down the door until she was sitting propped against it, then drew her legs up to her, slouching over her bent knees. Perhaps this was her version of the Cavender Curse-she had to suffer. She'd outlasted her father's beatings, walked away from a fatal plane crash, and had just made it through a high-speed drive only someone who had sold her soul to the devil could expect to survive.

Was that the Faustian bargain she'd made ten years ago? Was she condemned to pay for her actions that night until she felt true remorse? If so, she was doomed. Even knowing all she knew now, she still wouldn't change a thing. Yet she felt mortally wounded, her hopes slowly draining from her. She'd lost her family. She was going to lose the only place she could feel truly at home in. And once the corporation was sold, she would be severed from the past that defined her.

Yet she'd been willing to let go of everything. She would have traded it all to have Vienna. Like a fool, she'd believed that was possible. Mason's stomach churned with the bitter gall of the truth. She'd believed what she wanted to believe, that Vienna also felt incomplete without her. That they could work this out because they both wanted the same thing. Each other. Vienna's promise to spend the night with her felt like proof.

She didn't care if Vienna wanted to make her wait for consummation, but she was restless with fear and anticipation as soon as their ride was over. The minutes ticked by too slowly. Doubt set in. She'd waited so long to be at Vienna's side, it was unbearable to be stuck at Laudes Absalom marking time. Mason wanted to trust the evidence of those incredible kisses, but she had to know that Vienna meant what she said. She couldn't bear to contemplate the alternative.

Torn between fear and hope, and driven by the yearning to hold Vienna in her arms again, she'd set off on foot for Penwraithe. Mason heard her voice first, as she approached the rear of the house through the tree line. Vienna was talking on her cell phone, sitting at a table beside the swimming pool. Mason crept closer, wanting to look at her unobserved, knowing that beautiful body would soon be hers to touch. Fragments of conversation filtered through the noisy rush of blood to her ears.

"Mom, I told you I will do whatever it takes." Vienna cradled her head in one hand. She sounded frustrated. "I refuse to be sidelined over this. Blake males have been trying put the Cavenders out of business for the past hundred and forty years, and I'm expected to pull this off in a few months or I'm considered too weak to run the company? They can kiss my ass."

Each word landed like a blow. Mason couldn't stop herself from shaking. A silence stretched out as Vienna listened to her mother. She was facing the other way so Mason couldn't see her expression, but tension in her body was unmistakable. When she spoke again her tone was hard and devoid of emotion.

"When I'm done out here, you can tell my aunts I'm going to bring a countersuit and force a buyback of their shares now. Then I'm going to sack their precious sons and call the IRS down on their heads. They want to play hardball? They haven't seen a thing yet."

Mason covered her mouth to stifle the rising bile. Vienna would never be hers. Everything that had just passed between them was a farce. Vienna's kisses. Her tenderness. All phony. Vienna's arousal was real, but entirely sexual. The only passion driving her was the desire to conquer. The deep emotional bond that had endured in Mason all these years did not exist for Vienna. Mason had blinded herself to the clues. Vienna's rejections. Her careful evasions. The mixed signals Mason always picked up were not a refection of some internal struggle between duty and passion. Vienna was simply a predator outmaneuvering her prey. She was opportunistic, looking for weaknesses she could exploit, and Mason had exposed herself.

She should have guessed the situation wasn't as simple as it seemed. The Blakes would eat their young and it sounded like Vienna was in the middle of a battle to keep control of her company. Mason was in her way. Nothing more. Raw emotion choked her. Rage. Frustration. Abject misery. She buried her face in the tree bark, unable to move.

"Mason is exactly where I want her to be," she heard. "Now, stop worrying. I know what I'm doing."

Steeling herself, Mason turned back the way she came. She'd heard all she needed to hear, and there was nothing to be gained from a confrontation. The magnitude of her loss almost defeated her. She didn't know how she would ever claw her way back to a semblance of happiness. She'd spent her entire adult life trying to extinguish her hopeless yearning to be Vienna's lover. She'd taken refuge in the arms of women who gave her pleasure and lessened her loneliness. She'd done all she could to build a connection with those she liked and admired most, but nothing ever penetrated the cocoon that imprisoned her. She was irrevocably bound by an invisible silk that only seemed to tighten the more she struggled against it. There was no escape, no tearing her way out, no rescue to be had at the hands of other lovers.

Mason knew what she had to do. If she wanted to end this enchantment, she had to cast a stronger spell of her own. She had to find a way to strike back with the only weapons she had.

 

Vienna jerked up on her elbows, roused by a sound she couldn't identify. She listened in the darkness, her mind fogged with sleep. She'd been dreaming, a strange dream that almost suffocated her.

She was standing at the gates of Laudes Absalom, calling for someone to open them. On the other side, nature had run wild, reclaiming the once rolling lawns and all but concealing the house from sight. The woods were dark and twisted, crowding the driveway with huge overhanging branches and rising roots. Moss and weeds clogged every crack, forming a confluence of green rivulets that would one day flow in a single stream and wash the house away.

Pale saplings struggled up through the snarled confusion, their tender limbs grotesquely misshapen. Competing for sunlight, they sandwiched themselves between monstrous tree trunks and clumsy shrubs. Every plant fought its neighbors for the few inches of space as yet unspoken for. Vines bound them together in their struggles, creeping from the depths of the forest to strangle their unsuspecting hosts.

No one had tended the grounds in years, and from what Vienna could see of the house, it was similarly abandoned. Helplessly, she rattled the gates and shouted for help. Grass grew out the broken windows of the gatehouse. No one was coming and the way was barred.

She heard something then, a low soft whine, and a dog emerged from the dense undergrowth. It stood a few feet away, tall and elegant, its wheaten hair shimmering. A woman materialized next to it. She was dressed like a bride and her face was strangely familiar. Vienna could have been looking in a mirror that magically transformed her irregular features into finely wrought perfection. The eyes were a velvety dark blue that defied description. If rose petals came in such a color, their exquisite softness might compete. The woman's expression was that of a nymph who'd stumbled into a strange new world. She wore her hair in a loose braid. Its color was hard to describe, somewhere between auburn and gold.

She came toward Vienna and, with a beseeching look, stretched out a cupped hand. She was holding something. Vienna craned to see it but the dog was in her way. "Open the gates," she said, but the lovely stranger didn't hear her.

The dog tugged at the bridal gown, drawing his mistress back toward the hideous tangle of vine and branches. She seemed to take root then, right in front of a willow, becoming one with the tree's twisted form. The dog kept pawing at her gown, which was now a pale tree trunk. Finally the wooden folds parted to admit his slender body, then, from within the tree, he howled.

Vienna opened her eyes and stumbled out of bed. The Saluki. The lost dog Mason had mentioned. Apparently it had stuck in her mind, along with pangs of conscience over her former plans to drive the last of the Cavenders away from her ancestral home. It wasn't rocket science to interpret the dream; her mixed feelings were not exactly buried in her unconscious.

She turned on a lamp and padded into the bathroom. As she splashed water on her face, a dark suspicion crawled out from the fringes of her dream, a latent knowledge inaccessible when she was fully awake.

Her destiny was inextricably linked to Mason Cavender.

 


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